Tales of Comicbook Retail - A Q&A with Mike Sterling
- by Señor Editor, 30 October 2012
Mike Sterling is the Godfather of Comics Blogging. His website, Progressive Ruin, has been one of the most enjoyable reads on the internet for many years now. Whether he writes about comics, the "fandom", or the terrible offerings of the "Diamond Previews" catalogue, he never fails to be highly entertaining. And when he's not writing about comics, he's selling them. That's why we contacted Mike and sent him a list of NUMBERED QUESTIONS about the trials and tribulations of life in comicbook retail. He was kind enough to participate, so here we go!
1. You've been writing about comics and your job working comicbook retail for a long time now on Progressive Ruin and you're no doubt one of the most popular and liked comicbook bloggers. Are most of your customers at the store familiar with your blogging? Do they often bring it up?
I don't tend to bring it up, but a handful of customers have known about my site for a number of years, and just recently, when I revamped the store's website, I added a more prominent link to my site. So, if they didn't know about it before, chances are they do now! My site isn't brought up too often by my customers, however, beyond "I thought that thing on your site was funny" or "how dare you make fun of my favorite comic, Purgatori!"
I do occasionally get people asking if I read Chris Sims' stuff, though. I always say "No way! That guy's a jerk!" (…I'm just kidding! Chris is a good dude.)
2. What's the weirdest item a customer tried to sell you?
Honestly, I can't think of any really "weird," as such. Most things people bring in to sell that aren't items we deal in are at least generally in the same ballpark…no pun intended, as those items are usually sports cards. We get *asked* for weird things all the time, like the one fella looking for "inflatable sheep." I didn't inquire as to what he needed that for.
3. What's the strangest conversation you ever overheard in the shop?
There have been a few, but the one that sticks out in my mind is one guy telling his buddy "can you believe these [gesturing at the comics] are written by ADULTS?" …What did he expect, they were written by squirrels?
4. You're an expert on all things Swamp Thing. Scott Snyder even made it official and said you're Swamp Thing's best friend. How do Swamp Things comics sell in the store? How often do you recommend them to customers and did you convert many people to Swamp Thing fans?
The most recent Swamp Thing series has sold very well for us…like the majority of the relaunched New 52 titles, it started off very strongly, selling much higher numbers than we ever expected, particularly when compared to the previous Swamp Thing title. Also, like a lot of the New 52 titles, sales have finally settled down to normal, "no-longer-the-new-hot-thing" levels…which is still higher than the last decade or so's attempts at Swampy books.
Much to everyone's surprise, I'm sure, I am not standing on my soapbox constantly proselytizing for the Swamp Thing title. I recommend it, sure, when I think the customer might be interested in it, much in the same way I'd recommend any other title if I think it's up that customer's alley. And, in case anyone's wondering, if anyone comes in asking for Swamp Thing comics, my eyes don't immediately bug out as I rush over to them and info-dump every single thing I know about the character at them. I promise, I act normally.
5. You're probably beginning to see a pattern in these questions, but what's the weirdest customer you ever had? Like, say, a priest buying "Tarot", or an old lady that asked if you have a mint/NM "Youngblood" #7. A customer that just made you think "Wow, really?"
Early on in my funnybook retailing experience, I had a handful of female pro-wrestlers, in costume, stop by the store. Couldn't tell you what they bought, but that it even happened was amazing enough.
6. Comicbook movies. Do they bring in any new customers wanting to get right into comics after they saw the movie? How many of them come back for a second visit?
When the first Tim Burton BATMAN movie came out, we had tons of people before, during, and after the film seeking out Batman comics. That is pretty much the exception to the rule. Usually, interest in a comic with a forthcoming movie adaptation will peak just prior to the film's release, and then that interest will die out almost completely once the film is released. And that usually only works with the first film in a series…there was a resurgence in Spider-Man comic sales just before the first Sam Raimi-directed film came out, with no similar sales bump for any succeeding Spidey film.
There is usually a small trickle of residual movie-inspired interest from some folks after the film's release, but that's generally a tiny subset of the waves of demand prior to that point.
7. What series turned out to be a surprise hit in the store lately?
I'd already mentioned Swamp Thing, which isn't a HUGE hit, but it's certainly selling above and beyond what I would have expected. But other than that, there's not really anything that's caught us as a big surprise. Stuff like Avengers Vs. X-Men and Batman would have shocked us if they'd HADN'T sold as well as they did.
The surprises tend to be in second or third-stringer titles like Hawkeye, which aren't necessarily blockbuster sellers but end up attracting a consistent audience and are actually good comics, and maintain sufficient demand to require ordering of second printings.
9. Do you notice digital comics affecting your sales in any way? Do you feel that comicbook shops are in any way threatened by digital getting more and more popular?
I honestly don't know. I know I've had a customer or two tell me that they were giving up print editions for digital, but one was a person who just started a pull box that he only sort of half-heartedly kept up on, and the other was a longtime customer who had cut his pull box down to only a couple of books a month anyway. In general the trend I've noticed is that some of our customers are using digital editions to supplement the print editions, like if they can't find an issue of a series at the shop, they'll settle for reading it online.
I think in the long run younger folks who are more used to reading everything on a screen may prefer that delivery method to buying a stapled pamphlet in a shop, but I believe the customers we've had simply prefer having the actual object in hand rather than a virtual version. Like I said, I really don't know…I think the transition towards an audience that primarily prefers the digital option is still a ways away, but I'm fully aware that I could be wrong.
I will say I can safely store my print comics next to my industrial magnet collection. I'd like to see any of those NookPad comic readers try something like that!
10. Other than "Swamp Thing", what's your favorite ongoing series out right now?
My two favorite comics right now are Popeye from IDW (written by Roger Langridge) and Classic Popeye, also from IDW, reprinting the '40s/'50s series by Bud Sagendorf. Not an inch of space wasted in any of these comics, and also they star Popeye, and therefore are better than anything else on the stands.
11. POGs. You probably know more about them, than you'd like to. They were one of the stupidest fads in decades, and for a while they enjoyed huge popularity and were sold through comic stores. Do you think there's some product that comic stores carry nowadays that's a modern equivalent of POGs? If so, what is it?
Well, right now, thanks to the acquisition of stock from a former POG store, our own shop's modern equivalent to POGs is, sadly, POGs. We've got tons of 'em. However, there have been quite brisk sales of them on eBay lately, so who am I to complain?
As for any NEW stuff that's the POG equivalent? …I can't really think of any. POGs were particularly useless…the game was stupid, the product was generally crap, though some of the more interesting POG products seem to be enjoying a second sales life, much to my surprise. But the cardboard discs in and of themselves were useless, except maybe as tiny coasters for shot glasses. Even the trading card games that are out right now are at least usable as games, which require some amount of skill and brainpower.
No, I don't think there's anything on the shelves right now that's as intrinsically useless as POGs. Except maybe another X-Men spinoff…NO NO WAIT I'M KIDDING
12. Did you ever encounter an aggressive customer in your store?
Actually physically aggressive…no, not really. We had one guy get up in the boss's face, literally puffing his chest out and going toe to toe, because, I don't really recall, he was asked to not be an idiot in the store or something, and basically we just laughed at his little display and threw him out.
And not too long ago I had a guy get all bent out of shape because he brought a collection into the shop to sell, and I spend about a minute looking through his box of worn-out '90s comics I've seen a thousand times before, and told him I wasn't interested. Well, he sure didn't like that, and griped loudly about how I just blew him off and that he was promised that I would "definitely" buy everything he brought in when he called earlier in the day (I heard that conversation…no such thing was actually said). I tried to explain that, hey, I know my job, I know what I'm looking at, I only *need* a couple of minutes…but no, nothin' doin', he'd rather whine incessantly about it 'til he finally stomped out the door. What can you do, really.
Oh, and there's the one dude in his 30s who tried to park his bike inside the shop…I told him no way, lock up the bike in the rack outside. He apparently forgot the "lock up" part and the bike was stolen, which inspired days of harassing phone calls and threats to vandalize my car and just bouts of swearing -- did I mention he was in his 30s? -- and when we took his number from the Caller I.D. on the phone and filed a police report, oddly enough those calls stopped coming.
13. I'm sorry, this one is a bit depressing. Do you ever think that working in a comics store may have not been the best career choice? I mean, it sounds like a dream job for most people that really love comics, but I'm sure it's not all roses. What, if anything, can cause Mike Sterling to doubt he chose the right profession?
Well, the answers to #12 can bring up doubts, certainly, but when I was a librarian (my previous job) I had several encounters of equal note, which comes of working with the public. Otherwise…yes, there are jobs that would certainly pay more, and really, one of these days I probably should get one of those, but I do enjoy the job, I enjoy working with comics, I enjoy approximately 99% of my customers (some of whom I've known since they were children), and I certainly enjoy the relative autonomy I have in performing my duties.
14. And to end it on a positive note: what are the absolute best things about your job? The things that wouldn't be possible if you chose any other job.
Whoops, kind of answered some of that in the previous response, I guess. But I think in addition to all that, I think getting to meet some of the creators of my favorite comics who happen to drop by the shop is one of the real perks of the job. I don't want to drop a bunch of names here, but I think I'm pretty safe in mentioning Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, who stop by on a regular basis and really are two swell guys. (And our shop has a strong connection to Love & Rockets, as it was the first comic shop in the world to carry the original self-published version of that magazine!)
Overall, being a professional funnybook salesman may not bring prestige, may not bring wealth…but it certainly has brought a lot of enjoyment and friendships and positive relationships with many, many people, and for that I am certainly grateful. Oh, and there's the employee discount, too. Can't forget that!
Thank you, Mike!
And if YOU, dear Trash Mutant reader, aren't yet familiar with them: check out Mike Sterling's Progressive Ruin and (for all your POG needs) POGressive Ruin. If that's not enough, he also writes for The Bureau Chiefs and is one of the authors of the book "Write More Good". Then there's Estate 4.1, a blog collecting online comments that will make you shake your head until it falls off. You can also follow him on Twitter: @mikesterling.
And, last but not least, check out and/or visit Ralph's Comic Corner in Ventura, CA - the store where all of today's tales happened!